What My Past Creative Paralysis Has Taught Me About Choosing My Early Critics

rose_Snow

Seek roses in December — ice in June;
Hope constancy in wind, or corn in chaff;
Believe a woman or an epitaph,
Or any other thing that’s false, before
You trust in critics who themselves are sore.

                                                          Lord Byron

Asking someone else’s opinion about my writing is hard for me. I’ve had some deeply wounding experiences.

When I took a writing class in college, instead of gently explaining that I didn’t understand what poetry is and should give it another try, the professor wrote on my paper: “Never do anything like this ever again. EVER!”

This is a paraphrase. While I refuse to look at that old assignment to get the quote exactly right, I can assure you, these words are damn close to the actual comment. We remember the words that cut, every syllable of them. These words, and others like them, made me turn my back on my dream of being a writer. But the dream turned out to be stronger than the shame.

Many years later, a friend who takes writing seriously read a draft of my first novel as though it were the final polished work. She had some good things to say, but mostly she picked apart everything that needed work. The comment I remember best compared my admittedly cliché ending to a Hollywood movie. A bad, embarrassing, B-grade Hollywood movie.

I spent most of the day I got her comments crying on the sofa. I didn’t write again for several years.

Both experiences have taught me to choose my critics with care.

The professor had different standards for writing than I did. He expected lofty, artistic literature and I was writing science fiction stories. I admit, they were bad science fiction stories, but they looked even worse when compared with Hemingway and Woolf.

My friend also dreamed of being a writer but was doing other things with her life. I can’t remember who warns against getting a critique from a writer who is not writing, but it is excellent advice. A writer who is not writing takes out her frustration on your work.

Now I give my drafts to a friend who loves my stories, reads lots of books like the books I write, and who is a thoughtful reader. I also give her lots of warnings (“This draft is an ugly mess.”) and an idea of what I want back (“Tell me what you noticed.”).

She has been an excellent critic for me, because she is honest but gentle. She tells me what she likes or even loves about my story but she also points out where things are wobbly or don’t make sense. She makes suggestions about how I might carry forward, some of which are ideas that intrigue me, though some conflict strongly with my vision for the work.

Maybe she is too gentle, but I don’t care about that right now. I am grateful to be able to get any kind of feedback without winding up crippled on the sofa, afraid to pick up a pen ever again. I’ve already lost years recovering from the doubts caused by harsh and thoughtless criticism. I can’t afford to waste any more time.

I know there are more negative criticisms and unpleasant words in my future. I will not always have control over who comments on my work. But for now, while my work is in its delicate infancy, I am choosing my critics with care.

Have you had bad critical experiences? Did they leave you with deep wounds? What have you learned to do differently as a result?

Author: Kit Dunsmore

Kit is a writer and an artist who adores living in Colorado. Whether she's hiking in the mountains or walking the prairies, she's always watching the wildlife in order to learn more about the natural world.

4 thoughts on “What My Past Creative Paralysis Has Taught Me About Choosing My Early Critics”

  1. Hi Kit . . . Thanks for this blog post! I think you will get a lot of comments to this one! We ask those who we admire for their work to comment on ours. Innocents are we!

    I was spoken to harshly by a teacher who asked the class to write about something in current events. In fact, as I think about it, it was in a creative writing class that I took in the evening at a community college when I was about 20 years old. I approached him after class and bravely told him I was not really aware of current events and did not know what I would write about. I was thinking he wanted us to write something heady about world politics! His answer to me was something like: “Boy, are YOU shallow!” That hurt. I was looking for some guidance or coaching, not an insult. It made me mad and hurt at the same time. I think I finished the semester, but don’t recall anything else about it other than that brief interchange between the teacher and me. I hadn’t even written anything yet!

    I still write and keep my stuff in different notebooks around the house . . . and on the computer. I enjoy reading what I have written, so he did not kill my spirit, even though he bruised it.You can tell it is a wound that has not fully healed even now . . . 40 years later

    I guess what I wrote above does not really go with what you wrote about . . . but I imagine he had some real negative impacts on other students, as well, if he was like this on the first assignment . . .!

    Quilting has taught me a lot. I have learned I need to practice a skill before I can do it well. I have been applying that to other parts of my life because I often jump in with both feet, do something without the practice and wonder why I am disappointed in myself. I try not to be so hard on myself. So, transferring what I have learned from one part to of my life to another has been helpful. I don’t ask for much advice on my quilting skills. I just keep practicing. I did get some unhelpful unsolicited advice one day when I was at a sit and sew. I was so proud of myself for trying applique for the first time and had completed several blocks. One of the women pointed out that my circles were not round and advised me on what I should do to correct them.I put that project away for about 4 years until my husband pointed out that I was completely happy, even thrilled, with my work until that afternoon. I am working on it again . . . and enjoying the process.

    Emmy

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    1. Emmy, I think your comment is completely related to what I talked about in the post. People can hurt us with their words, even when they are trying to help (like the quilter who wanted you to make perfect circles). I can so relate to how hard words leave wounds that can take a long time to heal.

      I’ve also discovered the necessity for and the advantages of practice. People often compliment my machine-quilting, even though it doesn’t meet up to the perfectionist standards of traditional quilting (my stitch length varies dramatically). I’ve taken multiple classes and practiced on dozens of quilts to get where I am today with that skill, and when anyone asks how I do it, I always say “loads of practice”.

      Enjoying the process is key, especially on time-intensive projects like quilting and writing. If I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, I’d never hang in there until the end. It can be hard to put in that much time and be disappointed with the outcome, so you better enjoy what you are doing while you do it!

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  2. This is a really relevant post for me as I’m about to seek beta readers… I’m not asking people to lie – I want to know the truth. But it’s very important how exactly constructive comments / criticism is put. It’s something I’m careful to be extra considerate about in my work as an editor.

    I’ve experienced the opposite side of the coin – received some wonderful feedback and encouragement as a child (I send a ‘novel’ to Penguin asking them to publish it when I was twelve). It could easily have been thoughtless feedback or no feedback at all. The positive response – letting me down, but gently and in a spirit that left me open to holding onto and growing my dream to be a writer – allowed me to revisit the writing world with a positive attitude. I can entirely see how someones dreams can be crushed by entrusting their work to the wrong person – projection is rife. I’m entirely open to criticism – but only from someone who is thoughtful and considerate!

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    1. I want to know the truth, too, but I don’t want to be destroyed in the process. It’s easy to think it’s more about my attitude in receiving the criticism than in what my critics say, but truly hard words hurt. Accurate criticism makes me go “ah-ha!” not “ouch!”.

      Love your story about encouragement from Penguin when you were a kid. How cool is that? If only they could do the same thing for adults! 🙂

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